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Climate

The New Colorado River Proposal Buys Valuable Time

An interview with Dave White, a water expert at Arizona State University, about what a breakthrough along the Colorado River really means

A handshake and the Colorado River.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Arizona, California, and Nevada announced a deal on Monday to reduce the amount of Colorado River water they use, ahead of a bigger overhaul planned for 2026. The agreement is crucial, likely keeping the river from reaching dangerously low levels that would have put water supplies for major cities and agricultural regions at risk. But Colorado River water policy is often knotty and confusing, and it can be difficult to wrap one’s head around just what kind of impact deals like this can have.

To that end, I called up Dave White, the director of the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at Arizona State University and chair of the City of Phoenix’s Water/Wastewater Rate Advisory Committee. He explained how things work now, what the deal means, and how he’d like to see things change in the future — particularly in 2026, when the current set of water allocation rules expire and are replaced. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the basics: How do things currently work with Colorado River water?

There are more than 100 years of law policy agreements, which we collectively call the law of the river. But the most relevant is an agreement called the 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines for the Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. That’s the long name, but we typically call it the 2007 agreement.

That agreement created a set of rules that, as the name indicates, helped to guide the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. And along with subsequent agreements, particularly the drought contingency plans in 2019, it has guided the management of the reservoir system on the Colorado River and set forth the allocations managing the flow to the lower basin states.

Right now we’re in the time period between when the interim guidelines were established in 2007, updated with drought contingency plans in 2019, and when we’ll hit a deadline for a new set of operating guidelines in 2026. And so all of this is trying to manage the risk from the reduced water supply on the Colorado River and to help reestablish a balance in the supply-demand equation of water in an era of megadrought, climate change, and high agricultural demand and increasing municipal demand.

What does this deal announced on Monday do?

The first thing that’s important for folks to realize is that this is a proposal. What was announced was essentially an agreement among the lower basin states — California, Nevada and Arizona — to propose a plan to reduce demand in those states. It will need to go through additional steps to identify more specifics, and then this proposal ultimately will need to be adopted by the seven affected states and then endorsed by the Bureau of Reclamation.

What the proposal does is lay out a framework to reduce water demand in the lower basin by about 3 million acre feet. And for context, one acre foot is about 325,000 gallons of water, or the amount of water used by two to four homes in the western United States per year. That reduction would be taken across multiple sectors: agriculture, tribal communities, and some municipal or urban users, most notably the Metropolitan Water District of California, which is the Los Angeles area.

The idea is to reduce demand through voluntary conservation. And then part of the package is compensation for some of that voluntary conservation in the form of funding from the federal government through the Inflation Reduction Act to the tune of about $1.2 billion. That is an absolutely critical part of the of the story: the Inflation Reduction Act has really enabled this breakthrough, because of the federal funding for those voluntary conservation measures.

Another critical part of the story was that recently the Bureau of Reclamation released what’s called a draft environmental impact statement, and it presented a couple of alternatives to the states for consideration. Those proposals gave us kind of a federal government’s perspective on the framework moving forward. It was essentially a classic negotiating tactic, where the Bureau of Reclamation said, “look, you states have yet to reach a consensus agreement, so we’re going to lay out a plan,” and, as is often the case, everybody was unhappy with parts of that plan.

That helped to stimulate additional negotiations and bring California, in particular, more to the table. So it’s a very important moment in time because it represents a turning point in multi-year negotiations between the states. Importantly, it lays out a path forward for a consensus agreement that is driven by the states as opposed to being imposed upon them by the federal government. So, we’re talking about a breakthrough in negotiations that led to a three-state proposal.

You mentioned compensation. Who exactly would get compensated?

Well, that’s what we’re waiting to see. We don’t have all of those details yet.

Legally, the Bureau of Reclamation needs to go through this process, weigh the different alternatives, evaluate it, identify what they would call a preferred alternative, and then ultimately make a determination. But the Bureau of Reclamation has certainly indicated there’s initial support for this proposal and that the funding would be made available.

We don’t know who specifically would receive how much of that funding but we do know that it will be agriculturalists (essentially farmers and ranchers), some municipalities such as the Metropolitan Water District of California, and some Native American communities.

How does this compare to other proposals we’ve seen in the past?

We are still engaged in what I would call incremental adaptation. This is adapting to the rapidly changing conditions that are presented by this 22-year-long drought, the so-called megadrought in the region. We are also adapting to the impacts of climate change. If you go back, you know, the 2007 agreement was an incremental update to deal with a very significant risk of shortage on the Colorado River system in 2000 to 2005. We had the drought contingency planning process in 2019 that was another incremental adaptation at that time that was meant to get us to 2026, when the current guidelines expire. Environmental conditions continue to rapidly change, while the demand side continues to stay high. And while we’ve made a number of efficiency gains and voluntary reductions, the river is simply over-allocated for the flow that we have seen, especially since the turn of the millennium.

So we’ve been engaging in a series of incremental adaptations. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a very smart strategy as you move along, right? You’re incrementally adapting your policy to reflect the changing environmental and social conditions. This is another important incremental adaptation that will hopefully allow us to keep working towards the 2026 guidelines.

What I and many others argue is that we need a more transformative adaptation, we need a more significant restructuring. Now, it’s difficult to do that right now in the midst of a very short-term risk. But eventually, between now and 2026, we need to address some of the structural imbalance, or deficit, in the river. We have over-allocated the river in this era of increasing drought and climate change.

We’ve got to restructure the demand over the course of the next several years, and that’s going to require more transformational kinds of changes. But I also want to point out that’s not limited to reducing demand, right? You can do that through dramatic increases in efficiency. We can produce the same units of product, whether that be food or microchips or homes or businesses, with significantly less water.

The most effective strategy is efficiency. It’s the cheapest. It does not require significantly new infrastructure or new water augmentation. And there are lots of good stories out there, in creating more efficiencies and creating more flexible policies and more adaptability within the way that we manage water. We’ve got to sort of wring every cool new approach we can out of the system.

When you say efficiency, are there particular solutions that come to mind there that you would really like to see?

One that I think is really important is that the city of Phoenix and several of its regional partners in central Arizona are in the planning stages of moving towards an advanced water-purification process. What that means is it would allow the cities to pool their wastewater resources, their effluent, and then be able to treat that water through advanced water purification so we can reuse that water for municipal use. We call that direct, potable reuse of the water.

Central Arizona is incredibly efficient, we reuse about 90% of all the wastewater that we produce in the central Arizona region for power production, for urban irrigation, for agriculture, etc. But we can actually reuse that water to support households and businesses. We can then use that water again. Some of it is consumed by people, but basically cycling the water through the city as many times as possible reduces the need for new raw water.

So the current proposal that’s in the process of being developed by the City of Phoenix Water Services Department is for advanced water purification that, according to the current estimates, would produce about 60,000 gallons of water a day for City of Phoenix residents from wastewater. And so, that’s one way we can be much more efficient in recycling and reusing our water.

And I imagine if those technologies were implemented then folks on the ground wouldn't necessarily feel the impacts of any cuts as much.

I do think it gets to the need for greater public understanding and then, you know, individual and collective action. In single family residential households, for example, 50% or more, on average, of the water use is outside the home for things like residential landscaping and swimming pools. In the Phoenix area, we’ve seen a really significant trend in reducing water demand inside single family homes, thanks to technologies like low water-use toilets and more efficient washing machines and dishwashers and so on. The next frontier is getting more progressive with the way we manage residential landscaping water. And that's something that every individual household can do.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Las Vegas Regional Authority, has been really at the forefront of these kinds of strategies with turf buyback programs, incentivizing homeowners, and creating all sorts of both incentives and policies to reduce that outdoor residential demand. And that’s something where individual households can be empowered.

You mentioned that there’s a need for longer-term planning and larger change in terms of how we think about water. Do you think that proposals like Monday’s get in the way of that?

No, I really don’t. It’s about a sort of risk management in the short term, and then crafting new policy approaches and new management strategies over the long term. So I don’t think these get in the way of each other. The 2019 agreement essentially bought us some time, and this round of proposals and anticipated agreements will continue to buy us some time.

Do I think we need more adaptation, and more significant changes? Absolutely. But I would never criticize these incremental plans, because they’re absolutely necessary to manage short-term risk.

Without these actions, there was a plausible scenario where levels in the reservoirs could drop below the minimum power pool, meaning we wouldn’t be able to create power out of the Hoover Dam. In [the Bureau of Reclamation’s] 24-month studies, we began to see scenarios in which the lake levels dropped below the intakes, meaning we wouldn’t be able to deliver Colorado River water whatsoever to the states.

When you start to see these highly undesirable scenarios where you lose the ability to produce power, you potentially even lose the ability to deliver any water at all from the Colorado system to Arizona, California, or Nevada, you know you’ve got to act and engage in short-term risk management.

The risk that we’ve always seen is that you get some relief from the kind of very strong winter precipitation in the Rocky Mountains and in California that we had this year. But as a colleague says, we cannot let one good winter take the pressure off. I never want to root against good news, and the winter precipitation and the new proposal and potential agreements are good news. But you got to keep the pressure on and keep the emphasis on the long-term strategies.

The 2019 plan was supposed to get us to 2026, right?

[Laughs] Yes.

So this seems to be a sort of acknowledgment that the 2019 plan didn't work.

Well, I think you can look at it both ways. Yes, there was the intention that the 2019 plans would get us to 2026. Turns out the 2019 plans got us through 2022. That’s just the reality we’re in. Do I wish the 2019 plans would have gotten us to 2026? Yes. But without the 2019 plans, we would have been at risk of minimum power pool levels even earlier.

I was hopeful the 2007 plans would get us to 2026. But the reality is that the climate is changing, the drought has just been incredibly persistent. I mean, we now know from looking at reconstructions of the past climate that this 22-year period is the driest period in our region in the last 800 years for certain, and very likely in the last 1,200 years. That’s an exceptional period of drought. And so, by some measures, you know, it’s pretty remarkable what the water management community has done to manage the risk without significant disruption to the region. So in some ways, it’s a success story.

What would you like to see in the 2026 plan?

The single most important thing everyone recognizes is that we really need to chart a new path forward for agriculture. Particularly for agriculture in the lower basin, and even more specifically for non-food forage crops in the lower basin.

We still use two-thirds or more of our water in the lower basin for agriculture, and most of that is used for forage crops, like alfalfa, which feed livestock. So we very much need to restructure the agricultural sector in the lower basin and think about prioritization of certain types of agriculture in certain locations. And importantly, we need to work with agricultural communities, with landowners and businesses, to help them transition to a future that recognizes there’s less water available. And, you know, this is the challenge that we face: How do we make an intentional, thoughtful, supportive transition to a new, more efficient, and more appropriate type of agriculture in the West?

This region is in an amazing region to grow alfalfa if you have water. And so, there’s lots of rational choices that were made along the way. But in an era of significantly reduced water availability, it is simply not sustainable for us to continue to use that much of our available water for agriculture, and in particular for forage crops mostly to support cattle. And so this has to change.

I fully recognize, though, that these are private property rights, and there needs to be a process for this. We can’t just simply have a situation like what we saw in the Midwest where we just move all of our manufacturing overseas and abandon entire swaths of the country. We have to think about how we can help, whether it’s through compensation, community planning, capacity building, job transitions, etc. But that’s the biggest part of the solution. We need to be very thoughtful about that.

I think one of the key things we really need to get into the planning process [for 2026] is greater adaptability and greater flexibility so we’re able to respond to changing conditions. Under the current guidelines there is a priority rights process where we would have [hypothetically] seen the reduction of essentially all — 100% — of Arizona’s allocation of the Colorado River, before any of California’s rights were reduced. But it seems implausible to eliminate the Colorado River water supply to Phoenix, which is the fifth largest city in the country. These are the third rails of water politics. We have to rethink the way that these water allocation decisions are made, and we’ve got to be much more flexible, much more adaptable, and really think about how we can respond to climate and water conditions.

Blue

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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